We gave it an A
Two parts, three plays, five and a half hours of characters discussing themselves in the third person, verbalized stage directions, heavy-handed Hurricane Katrina imagery, allusions to Yoruba deities, and periodic bursts of song. On paper, The Brother/Sister Plays sounds like a theater snob’s dream — overstuffed, highbrow, see-them-only-to-say-you-saw-them shows with an academic aura (playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, now 29, apprenticed August Wilson at Yale School of Drama) and downtown street cred (it’s showing at Off Broadway’s Public Theater). But on stage, The Brother/Sister Plays seem like they were written solely for the audience’s enjoyment. The three pieces are genuinely (sometimes bawdily) funny, miss-them-and-regret-them shows with authentic characters and rooted-in-reality story lines.
In part 1, In the Red and Brown Water, budding track star Oya (the beautifully sunny Kianné Muschett) is just another good girl who falls for a bad boy, the love-’em-and-leave-’em soldier Shango (Sterling K. Brown); he can make her melt with one touch — as he says repeatedly, stroking her right ear, ”Shango curls his fingers?He caresses.” Part 2’s first act, The Brothers Size, finds big-hearted Ogun Size (Marc Damon Johnson) — the good guy who desperately loves Oya in part 1 — playing parent to his just-paroled little bro, Oshoosi Size (Brian Tyree Henry). Oshoosi’s pal from prison, his so-called ”brother” Elegba (André Holland) — he appears in part 1 as a cheeky but endearing petty thief with precognitive dreams — turns up mysteriously; Ogun knows that ”you don’t make friends in the pen.” (Hint: In the Yoruba pantheon, ”Elegba” is the trickster.) In part 2’s second act, Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, we meet Elegba’s son, Marcus Eshu (also played by Holland) — we glimpse him briefly as a baby in Water — a high school boy trying to come to grips with his homosexuality and with his absentee father, who may also have been ”sweet” (translation: gay).
The plays’ epic scope (19 characters, two generations) is grounded by the modest setting (a Louisiana bayou housing project), and made all the more accessible by McCraney’s salty sense of humor — his spoken-aloud stage directions (”Moja sighs. Giving into the lil f—er”) are priceless — and inimitable brand of plainspoken poetry. At one moment, in Marcus for example, he has the audience roaring over the term Black MoPhobia: ”Slave owners get pissed if they find/ Out they slaves got gay love./ That means less children, less slaves,” explains Marcus’ sassy friend Shaunta Iyun (Nikiya Mathis). ”Where else it come from?/ We just naturally mad at gay folk?” Then we’re holding back tears and holding our breath as she tells him the origin of the word sweet: ”Two slaves?hide their love from the light./ Dark kisses in the midnight hour, with shackles for love./Bracelets, chains for promise rings./ Master tie and tether the lovers?lashing into the skin that they just held/ To tight moments Ago. Skin that was just kissed now/Split ope’…he run down get some sugar/ Prolly pour it on so it not sting as bad as salt but it get Sticky?Sweetness Draw all the Bugs and infection?Sweetness Harder to wash.” If there’s a weakness, it’s in Marcus; the title character’s recurring dream is too cluttered and too cloudy. But the rest is so stirring the flaws matter not. Nor does the cumulative running time, which whisks by like a bayou breeze. Grade: A
(Tickets: tickets.publictheater.org or 212-967-7555)